- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2003

How old were you when you got your first knife? I was 6.

My father thought I was responsible enough to keep a Dolch, the knife of German hunters that is carried in a small sewn-in sheath on the right side of their Lederhosen — the famous leather shorts or knickerbockers that most German outdoorsmen wear, especially those in my native Bavaria. My Dolch was a smaller version of those carried by the adults on our farm, but it was a fixed-blade beauty all the same, with a handle fashioned from the foot of a real roebuck.

My knife was sharp enough to whittle a willow stick into a wonderful whistle. First, you cut a finger-thick, 4-inch-long piece of fresh willow, then gently tapped the knife handle on the bark, slowly rotating the would-be whistle until the bark loosens enough to let it slide from the wood. Then you cut a flat sliver of the bare wood halfway down on one side to let air pass through, made a vee-shaped indention at the end of the flat cut and slipped the moist bark back onto the wood. Mine made wonderful sounds that I’m sure annoyed the grownups on our farm, but I can’t recall ever getting spanked for blowing that whistle too loudly or too often.

While I made whistles or threw the knife down into fresh sod (amazing even myself at how good I’d become at seeing the tip of the blade enter the dirt almost without fail), a friend in later years who grew up in Texas, Bill Garner, recalled owning a small folding knife just as hundreds of thousands of other American boys did.

Bill, who answered to the nickname Bull because of his stubbornness and tough demeanor when he was a youngster, longed to own a Ka-Bar or a Case “folder,” and with his first little knife whittled cottonwood or wild grape vine branches into heaps of shavings, maybe peeled an apple now and then, or — given the right set of circumstances and imagination — pretended he was Jim Bowie.

What is it about the males of the human species and their love affair with knives? Despite my upbringing in another country and my fondness for knives there, I believe this affection is even more pronounced among Americans.

No doubt the preference for sharp blades of all types in the United States is rooted in the necessity of such instruments during the formative years of a young and growing nation. There was Daniel Boone, who supposedly “killed a b’ar at the age of 3,” the aforementioned Jim Bowie of Bowie knife fame, frontiersmen like Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Jedediah Smith and others who wouldn’t think of going into the mountains after beaver, mink, or other game without their beloved knives.

They carried a curved skinning knife, sometimes a throwing blade and certainly some kind of fixed-blade version that was used to cut green animal hides into lanyards, to whack a piece of chewing tobacco from a twisted rope of leaves and also to field dress a deer, then cut slender pieces that were rubbed with salt when available and sun-cure or smoke them over smoldering alder bushes. Though those men often made do without a rifle, they could never have functioned without a knife.

Knives and Americans go together like cream goes with coffee. More so than any other country, the United States continues to be home to growing numbers of custom knife makers and stores, from bargain-priced Wal-Marts to mail order catalogs offering anything from a $10 folding pocket knife to $1,000 custom-ground, polished and sharpened beauties that look too good to be used.

Lately, I’ve had a great time reading about the different types of knives, some of their origins, how to make knives and how to choose the various types for dozens of applications.

In the paperback book “2004 Sporting Knives,” edited by Joe Kertzman ($22.99, 255 pages, Krause Publications, Iola, Wis., krause.com), you’ll learn that this book is the only one of its kind that focuses on the factory and semi-production knives that matter mostly to hunters, anglers, law enforcement and military personnel. You’ll see articles about the latest innovations for sporting knives (even swords), followed by a fully updated illustrated catalog that lists every major knife maker, contact information, e-mails and Internet addresses. It is fully illustrated, but the 1,000-odd photos are all black-and-white.

The other paperback is “Knife Talk II, The High Performance Blade” by Ed Fowler ($19.99, also from Krause Publications), the story of the author, an internationally renowned knife maker from Wyoming, who quickly puts to rest any thoughts we might have harbored about the “perfect” knife. There is no such thing. What is perfect to one person is totally wrong for another.

Fowler tells us what to look for in potentially expensive high performance blades, then teaches us the difference between stainless steel blades and those fashioned from carbon steel. (I favor carbon steel for its ease of sharpening, even if it’s just on a simple rock by the side of the road.)

You’ll follow Fowler on an illustrated journey that includes oodles of tips for new knife makers: how to grind, harden and temper blades, how to use steel as hard as a ball bearing and how to forge such metal. The book even features historical chapters about the “Iron Mistress,” Jim Bowie’s knife that resulted in a movie, as well as the knives used by Lewis and Clark and others.

Delightful and very educational. Now pardon me, I have to whittle a beechnut branch into a toothpick.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.

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